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Education Lending Solutions

An Innovative Leap: Redefining Education with Bright Spaces and a Strong Community

The new high school building at NVCA.

In April 2017, the story of North Valley Christian Academy (NVCA) in Phoenix, Ariz., made its rounds and inspired other Lutheran schools to re-ignite their missions. Originally a preschool-thru-eighth grade, NVCA partnered with Lutheran Church Extension Fund (LCEF) to launch a high school on their campus in 2017. The school’s enrollment that year was approximately 250 students, and the school was more than poised to grow. 

By 2024, NVCA had tripled in size with more than 700 students, and five graduating classes have been sent out into the world. The high schoolers wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from the new space on campus, though.   

A booming student population
As a side effect to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gary Yiatchos, board chair and project manager for NVCA, said, “private education boomed and many parents chose private schools for the elementary grades.”  

The new high school design includes a collaborative learning.

This meant a sudden influx of new elementary students for NVCA in 2020, and the school needed classroom space for all of them. Where NVCA had previously had one classroom per grade level, the pandemic doubled enrollment and brought about the need for two classrooms per grade.  

Thankfully, they had just expanded their campus in 2017 to accommodate the high school. Could some of those classrooms be repurposed? 

“We were able to take the space and address the needs of families in the lower grades,” said Yiatchos. So, they moved elementary students into the classrooms intended for high schoolers, just temporarily, while high school students met in the school’s open-concept and collaborative spaces.  

Open and bright classrooms
Meanwhile, the middle and high school student population grew, and so did NVCA’s dream of what they could offer to these students. It became apparent that the campus would now need a new dedicated high school building on campus, so a plan took shape detailing how this new space might look. 

The plan included a state-of-the-art building, financed through LCEF, that would provide a “flexible, collaborative and dynamic learning environment that would encourage and create interaction and engagement between students,” shared Yiatchos. 

What that meant was light. Bright, cheerful, open classrooms with a garage-door concept that would open up to outdoor patios for fresh air and bring natural light further into the rooms. 

“We wanted to make it a fun building to be a part of,” added Yiatchos. “So, we adjoined classrooms together and to the outdoors, which also makes the rooms look bigger.” 

Bringing in the light wasn’t just for aesthetics. NVCA also wanted to ensure that the building itself created an environment that would impact the minds and hearts of the students.  

“We wanted to get kids out of a box in terms of attitude and how kids learn,” said Yiatchos. “That natural light, getting outside – it’s very important.” 

Keeping students engaged also meant taking a creative approach inside the classroom walls – which included glass that can be written on with dry-erase markers, allowing more students to participate at the same time. 

Two lecture halls with retractable seating and – you guessed it – bright light help keep students connected and these two halls connect into one large, versatile performing arts center for the school. 

Community, culture, connection
Whether it’s connecting lecture halls or students, this new concept hearkens back to NVCA’s beginning in 2005, when the school was originally part of Cross of Christ Church. 

“The school, right from the beginning, was always a family,” recalled Yiatchos. “There had always been a familial connection with staff and parents. That’s a lot harder now with 700 kids, so we’ve worked to maintain that family and community aspect at NVCA.” 

Community is a word that gets used often at the school, agreed Chris Schoenleb, head of school for NVCA.  

“We have a very strong sense of community at this school, not to mention a strong Christian culture, and the parents are heavily involved at all levels,” he shared. 

The parents are so involved, in fact, that they don’t just drop their kids off at school and leave. NVCA parents stick around to chat – and with space at a premium, they end up hanging around outside the front doors and in the parking lot. 

Keeping up this culture of community among both students and parents is a priority for NVCA, and they want to continue encouraging that familial identity using the new space. 

“When we open our newest building in March 2024, we’ll already be at capacity,” said Schoenleb. “We’re using the collaborative learning spaces right now as classrooms, but soon those will be freed up; and one of the first things we’re going to do is have a section of school by the front office for parents to use to hold meetings and drink coffee in the morning. We know parents have missed having their own space, too.” 

Not too risky for LCEF
All of this wouldn’t have been possible, said Yiatchos, without LCEF’s own leap of faith. 

“We wouldn’t be here without LCEF,” he said. “They’ve been incredible. In 2014, when I first approached Larry [Crume, Senior Vice President of Lending Solutions at LCEF], we didn’t even have money to buy the property. But LCEF took a risk with us because we had a good plan and a good quality of relationship and trust. Without their belief in us, we couldn’t have accomplished this, especially with the outside banking community.” 

The other thing that LCEF saw, explained Schoenleb, was that Phoenix is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Inside this city, a lot of people are “looking for a quality school that is teaching traditional values where students are getting involved with Christ through an in-depth Christian education.” 

“Bankers don’t always see that, but LCEF did,” agreed Yiatchos. “This leap of faith, it’s a miracle with a school that started with 150 students, 10 classrooms, three offices, one multipurpose room and asphalt on every side of the school.” 

Still not the last chapter
Maintaining a healthy connection to the past, NVCA also looks forward to the future – both at this school and in Lutheran education in general, from preschool through high school. 

“We’re just fulfilling a need for families,” said Schoenleb. “To support most private high schools, you need a lot of students to make it work. There is a huge benefit in providing a preschool through high school program. There are only about 100 Lutheran high schools, and not too many are preschool through 12th, but I think this is the future of Lutheran education.” 

Even with the new high school building up and running, NVCA knows that the story isn’t quite finished yet. Their imaginations are still hard at work, planning an early childhood center just across the street from the current campus that will keep families connected – in the classroom, with each other and most importantly, to Christ. 

“Hopefully by end of 2024, we’ll have a set of plans and a permit approved by the city,” said Yiatchos. “We want to begin in 2025 and have it ready by January 2026. Having all ages on one campus, that’s the complete vision. It’s not unlike where we started when we envisioned this back in 2014.” 

Keeping connected to LCEF, too, means their vision will be a reality – and their reality will continue to help inspire the growth of even more Lutheran schools.